Oversight and Ambition: Issa's Rising Profile

Oversight and Ambition: Issa's Rising Profile

By Adam O'Neal - November 7, 2013

Just days before the federal government's funding authority was set to expire on Sept. 30, House Republicans announced plans for a continuing resolution that would delay the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate for one year. Passing the new bill -- which Senate Democrats vowed to reject -- all but ensured that a government shutdown would occur.

A reporter, standing just inches from Rep. Darrell Issa, asked the California congressman what he and his fellow conferees planned to do “when this fails.”

“How dare you presume a failure? How dare you? How dare you?” Issa shouted, his voice rising as he went on. “How dare you presume a failure?”

The bill went nowhere, and the government remained closed for 16 days.

Issa’s aggressive response betrayed all of his promise -- and liabilities -- as an ambitious politician. While he may never be elected to one of the House leadership positions he has long desired, the Oversight Committee chairman continues to position himself as a significant force in his party.

Consider immigration. In October, the seven-term congressman announced that he would be releasing his own comprehensive reform legislation. He presented the bill as a classic compromise: It would grant illegal immigrants only six years of legal status.

“It’s halfway -- and it always has been halfway -- between full amnesty and simply rejecting people,” Issa, whose district is one-quarter Latino, told Politico. It’s unlikely that his bill will see any action this year; his office has yet to even release the measure. Issa can keep busy, however, with another issue that qualifies as low-hanging fruit for the GOP: investigating the problems that have engulfed the Affordable Care Act rollout.

Oversight Committee staff privately questioned manager Henry Chao for several hours a few days ago. Issa subpoenaed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for documents related to the exchange website’s ongoing problems. And earlier this week, his office released 175 pages of Obamacare “war room” notes that it obtained through subpoena. The documents, which detailed the website’s problems, proved an embarrassment for the Obama administration. Public hearings will likely follow, and Issa will once again take center stage as the leader of an important investigation.

A Bumpy Route to Success

Though the conservative lawmaker has maintained a highly visible role as a foil to Obama’s policies, his road to political stardom was anything but smooth.

Issa, who recently turned 60, spent his early years in a Cleveland suburb. His father sold trucks for a living and worked a second job at night to help provide for his six children. At 17, Darrell dropped out of high school and joined the Army, where he worked in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. He received mixed reviews from superiors, and left the Army after three years when his father had a heart attack. Issa then attended Siena Heights University, a Catholic college in Michigan, before transferring to Kent State, where his conservative politics began to crystallize. After graduating, Issa served in the U.S. Army Reserve for four years. He garnered praise during his second stint in the military: Then-Lt. Col. Wesley Clark wrote in a report that Issa had “unlimited potential.”

But college and the Army defined only part of Issa’s early adulthood. Cars played a central -- and often troublesome -- role, too.

In 1971, a member of Issa’s Army unit accused the 18-year-old soldier of stealing his car (Issa denied the allegation, and no charges were ever filed). A few months later, Issa and his brother William were arrested for stealing a Maserati out of a dealer’s showroom (the charges were later dropped). In 1972, when he was pulled over for a traffic violation, police found a gun in his car -- which he later explained belonged to William. He pled guilty to possession of an unregistered firearm and was given six months’ probation. Several years later, Issa and his brother were indicted for grand theft after being accused of an insurance scam. Those charges were also dropped.

Automobiles -- and methods of preventing their theft -- also transformed his life for the better. He invested in an electronics company and then a car alarm company. He operated a series of the latter, which would eventually do hundreds of millions of dollars in business with major car manufacturers. Issa proudly displays several of his patents in his office, and he has a knack for fixing electronics. Today, his assets have been estimated at more than $350 million, making him the wealthiest member of Congress.

As Issa’s fortune grew, his attention shifted away from business. He became involved with electronics trade associations, which led him to dabble in politics. In the 1990s, he established himself as one of the top Republican donors in California, funding myriad candidates and a successful ballot proposition to ban affirmative action. By then a resident of a San Diego suburb, Issa further increased his stature by helping bring the 1996 Republican National Convention to his city.

Increasingly popular among state Republicans, he ran for the Senate in 1998. Confronted by the old accusations of car theft, arson, and the gun charge, Issa lost the Republican primary by five points. Down but not out, he won the seat in a reliably conservative district in 2000 and has remained a congressman ever since.

In 2003, as momentum built in California to recall unpopular Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, Issa saw an opportunity. He donated $1.6 million to the recall effort, eying the governor’s mansion for himself.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California School of Policy, Planning and Development, has followed Issa’s career since the recall. She says he was instrumental in removing Davis from office.

“Until [Issa became involved], the governor and his staff didn’t believe a recall would qualify,” she told RealClearPolitics. “I think he caught the Davis people unprepared.”

But the ambitious lawmaker was also unprepared for the renewed scrutiny that would come his way. Nearly 80 percent of Californians had no opinion of him at the time, and the allegations regarding his past criminal conduct resurfaced, filling that void. Bob Mulholland, a campaign adviser to the California Democratic Party, told the New York Times in 2003 that Issa “might as well have tattoos on his arms.” Arnold Schwarzenegger entered the race, and Issa stepped aside, announcing that he had no plans to pursue the office.

“Really, Schwarzenegger big-footed Issa,” said Jeffe.

How does Issa himself remember all this? That’s hard to say. His office declined requests from RCP for an interview.

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Adam O'Neal is a political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearAdam.

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